Demolition of Single Family Houses – the Epidemic Continues

By Cathy Galbraith

If anything, the epidemic of demolition of single-family homes has only accelerated and concerns across the city of Portland neighborhoods are red hot. An estimated 389 demolitions took place in 2013; it’s rumored that a-demo-per-work-day is happening in 2014. It’s next to impossible to argue about the appeal to a home-owner looking for a quick and easy sale…all-cash offers for a house in “as-is” condition, saving any real estate commissions, no worries about underground oil tanks, dry rot, and poor insulation. Defects just don’t matter when demo-and-replacement is planned.

For the builder/developer, the economics are a sure bet. One single family home, whether exceptionally “modest” or “very nice” is purchased and then replaced with a much bigger and more expensive home (often more than one.) Given the great neighborhoods-with-character locations, these new high-end houses command top sale prices with guaranteed profit margins for the builders. They no longer need to worry about recouping the costs of a new subdivision, like installing utilities, access roads, and sidewalks. Instead, they are filling up the mail boxes of homeowners with enticing “quick sale – close in days” offers, looking for houses to buy and demolish.

So how can we counter the scraping away of a house that may be worth $475,000 if the replacement house can sell for $975,000 – – and there may be more than one new house? That’s the tough nut to crack and the City of Portland has made it exceptionally easy for the demo-and-replace builders – – while exceptionally disruptive on the surrounding owners and residents. The city’s impetus seems to be “density” (or maybe it’s conflict avoidance with the builders/proponents…) and trust me here – – it is definitely not the Urban Growth Boundary. Someone once told me that “planners don’t get paid to keep things the same” but I find it ludicrous when planning documents (and campaigning elected officials) talk about “Portland’s celebrated neighborhoods” and then proposes absolutely nothing to protect the character that makes those neighborhoods so celebrated! It’s the context of vintage homes that blend so well with one another, the consistent use of high-quality materials, the regularity of setbacks, and the mature landscaping and trees – – that’s what helps make up the character and it’s what disappears with demolition and replacement.

After much debate, discussion, and a very practical look at the many issues at play, we propose the following potential “fixes” as a start:

(1) While notice to surrounding property owners, in and of itself, is not much of a fix, it does let neighbors prepare for noise, dust, and the possible exposure to environmental hazards (like asbestos.) Right now, notice is only now (recently) required by the city when more than one new house is proposed. There’s no notice/delay when a demo application and the replacement house permit are filed the same day. Asking builders to provide notice voluntarily (under discussion at the City) doesn’t cut it, if few builders do it. Either the city should require notice across the board, or provide an incentive for notice – – like a reduction in the cost of a building permit.

(2) Change the definition of “demolition” in the city’s development code – a big problem is that any demolition that leaves any portion of a house still standing (such as a partial foundation wall) is called an “alteration” or “remodel”, not a demolition (which are seriously under-counted, as a result.) More typically, many other jurisdictions use “at least 50% of a structure remains standing” as the primary criteria for an alteration/remodel. If that’s reasonable enough for other cities and counties, it should be acceptable for Portland.

(3) Houses that are obviously historic (but unprotected) are those that have long been listed on the city’s 1983 Historic Resources Inventory, but many houses have reached the age of 50+ since then. We propose a mandatory 120 delay for houses on the HRI or at least 50+ years old. These are likely the ones that need time for investigating alternatives to demolition. (The historic-but-unprotected late 1800s Goldsmith House in NW Portland was purchased by a group of NWDA activists (including our board member Rick Michaelson) from the demo/developer, just in time to save it from certain demolition.)

(4) Require that existing front and side yard setbacks be maintained for the new house(s) –  One major concern is that after a demolition, a new house is not only usually bigger, but it covers much more of the lot, often changing the streetscape substantially. If the front and side-yard setbacks stay the same for the new house, the streetscape remains more like it’s traditional neighbors. Expansion in size of the new house should be allowed only at the rear of the site, minimizing impact on the street and to the side yards of its adjacent neighboring houses.

These provisions are a start at getting a handle on the demolition epidemic that’s only growing. We’ll be airing these on our blog and elsewhere as we look for the willingness of our elected officials to respond to the firestorm of concern that’s also only continuing to grow across our city and throughout “Portland’s celebrated neighborhoods”




Filed under Historic Preservation, Infill Development, Sustainability

4 responses to “Demolition of Single Family Houses – the Epidemic Continues

  1. Kimberly Koehler

    I would add only two points to Cathy’s well-written article: anyone applying for a major renovation or demolition permit should have to provide proof of asbestos/leadpaint survey and abatement BEFORE being issued a permit.
    And “developers” who wish to demolish a single-family home in an established neighborhood should be REQUIRED (not simply encouraged) to de-construct the home. For example, the original oak floors at 3620 SE Rural will be recycled next month when Renaissance Homes demolishes the house, but not re-used as flooring materials. What a waste! And in a city that calls itself “green”.

    • Johnson

      Pretty much any of the houses being demolished are going to have lead and/or asbestos–that’s a given and yes a concern as to whet happens to it during demolition.
      As for “deconstruction”, usually hardly practical if safe at times. Yes, builders should be encouraged to salvage things but many times there’s comparatively little to salvage, or at least can be gotten intact. Take apart a house which not only has been standing for say 95 years, but has been neglected for several years and you’re likely to find extensive water damage, dry rot, vandalism…sometimes there’s just little left worth saving—few of these are truly “historic” houses anyway, though many are pretty and should be saved, when possible (within reason).

      • Aaron Smith

        As a person who has deconstructed homes for a living, I think you might be surprised at the percentage of materials that are usually salvageable/reusable–even in houses that are in relatively poor condition. My organization averaged a material recovery rate of around 70%, excluding slab foundations. Still, ten dumpsters and a trackhoe operator are always going to be cheaper than two dumpsters and the labor time of carefully pulling up flooring, lath, etc. without damage. I would love to see the City offer some sort of financial incentive for deconstruction over demolition/recycling to bridge some of that gap.

  2. Cathy, I agree with all the points except number 4. While in many neighborhoods, this may be a good idea, it’s not necessarily good for all instances. In Brentwood-Darlington, for instance (along with many areas annexed into Portland that were formerly unincorporated Multnomah County), the original houses were Depression-era shacks, never truly meant to be permanent structures but instead erected cheaply and quickly to provide housing in a pinch. The fact they have lasted this long, 80+ years later, is amazing. But, as many of them may be only 600 square feet on 6000 sq ft lots, it would make no sense to require a new, architecturally-designed, quality-built house to use the same building footprint (which is what requiring the same setbacks would mean). Instead, the opportunity to replace a poorly-built shack with a well-designed home could mean increasing the building footprint, but also constructing a structure with the ability to stand the test of time and providing quality housing on that lot for many future centuries, if well-maintained.

    Also, with regards to the definition of “historic”: Given the reality that, during the Depression, many homes were not built to the same standards as those during the 20s or earlier; and that after World War Two, homes were built as cheaply as possible rather than as works of craftsmanship, I would propose that any home built before 1930 be considered historic, rather than any home that is 50 years or older. Pretty soon, a home built in 1970 will be 50 years old, and as we all know, most homes built in the 70s are already pretty much ready for replacement due to shoddy construction standards and poor material quality. Just not the same as an old Craftsman, Victorian, etc., built to extremely high standards of craftsmanship, using old growth lumber, etc!!

    That’s my $0.02.

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